New discoveries about football related injuries could change the game forever

New research links football to CTE, a brain disease with devastating side effects.

Imagine the game of football without tackling. Would you still watch?

We’re guessing your answer was no. Tackling is at the heart of the sport. As the NFL coach Vince Lombardi put it, “football is not a contact sport, it’s a collision sport.” Whether we like to admit it or not, it is the violence of the game -- the tackles and sound of helmets colliding -- that we love.

The violence and safety of the game have been called into question in recent years, as new long-term health effects linked to playing football have been discovered. Many are pushing for changes to be made to the game in order to reduce the number of football-related injuries and diseases.

Changes in tackling

This past March, the NFL passed a new helmet contact rule that has caused a great deal of confusion for players, coaches and refs alike. The new rule is aimed at making the game safer by reducing the number of head injuries caused by tackling. According to the rule, players can’t “lead with the crown of their helmets to initiate contact against an opponent on any play.”

The new contact rule has proven to be difficult for players to adapt to during preseason. Officials called the helmet penalty 50 times in the first two weeks of the 2018 preseason alone. Players have been playing the sport with helmet contact for years, so making this change to a technique that has always been second nature will not happen overnight. Many critics of the rule fear that this will change the game of football forever.

NFL players can no longer lead a tackle with the crown of the helmet. [Credit: Kevin Terrell/Associated Press]

InMyArea (IMA) spoke with former NFL player Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, who played for the Houston Oilers (1974-1980), Montreal Alouettes (1981), Atlanta Falcons (1982-1987) and the Washington Redskins (1988). Johnson is known for being one of the best return specialists in the history of the league. He is also one of the originators of the endzone touchdown dance. Johnson told IMA, in regards to the new rules, “Sometimes I think we have to have that change for the betterment of some of the players. When I came into the league, there were a lot of things you could do which are illegal now … but we knew a change was coming and it had to change sometime.”

While the new rule has been tough on NFL players, it has also contributed to changes in the ways that youth and high school coaches teach tackling. IMA interviewed Brian MacDonald, a football coach at Redwood High School in Visalia, California. MacDonald notes that most high school football programs have begun changing tackling techniques to make the game safer in recent years. At Redwood, tackling technique is gone over at every practice. As for the future of the game, he says “coaches are coaching better, [there is] more emphasis on technique rather than just going out and hitting. The game will be gone if we’re not careful.”

Programs like Heads Up Football put on by USA Football and youth leagues like Pop Warner emphasize safe tackling techniques to mitigate the game’s risk, starting at a young age. Pop Warner also limits the amount of time spent on contact during practice to reduce the number of injuries that occur outside of games.

By teaching younger players how to tackle more safely, leading without their helmets will become a habit. This may make it easier for future generations of NFL players to comply with the new helmet contact rule, so the game might not change as drastically as we think.

Changes in equipment

Because most safety concerns in football revolve around damage to the brain, the NFL has been working to improve the players’ helmets. In 2016, the league launched a campaign encouraging companies to reinvent the traditional helmet and make it safer.

This campaign led to the development of the Zero1 helmet, created by a Seattle-based company called Vicis. Zero1 differs from other helmets, as the shell is lined with plastic columns that can shift or compress to absorb the brunt of the impact. The helmet also has a tighter fit than traditional helmets, which is meant to help keep the player’s head more stable.

The NFL tests the different helmets worn by players in the league each year to determine which models are the safest. In both 2017 and 2018, the league named the Zero1 the safest helmet on the market. The helmet was used by more than 60 NFL and college players during the 2017 season. More teams at the professional, collegiate and high school levels have announced that they will be switching over to the Zero1 for the 2018 season.

The Zero1 helmet replaces traditional padding with plastic columns. [Credit: Vicis Zero1]

As a result of new helmet designs, the NFL announced in April that it would prohibit 10 older helmet designs that the league deems are unsafe. This is the first time that the NFL has ever banned specific helmets. Over 200 players will be impacted by the new ban, including Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Adrian Peterson, who all wore the older helmets in past seasons.

Many players wearing the Zero1 have said that they don’t feel impacts as intensely and no longer experience headaches from tackling; however, there is no definitive proof that the helmet reduces concussions. Vicis even notes this fact in a YouTube video announcing the release of the new helmet.

When asked about the new equipment and what he believes is the best way for players to avoid concussions, Billy Johnson said:

“You know that’s a 64 million dollar question … You can’t really prepare for a concussion. The only way you can stop a concussion is if you were able to go inside the brain and prevent it from moving. I don’t care what type of helmet you’re wearing and what new features that they are trying to highlight. It will not bring about a person not getting a concussion.”

The experts agree with Johnson on this fact. Bennet Omalu, the doctor who discovered a brain disease linked to football called CTE, states that “there is no equipment that can prevent this kind of injury.” As long as the game exists, concussions will always be present. All that can be done is find ways to reduce the number and severity of these head injuries.

Johnson, who now coaches high school football in Duluth, Georgia, recommends strength training and a focus on technique for trying to avoid injury. He says “the person playing knows some of the things that can and will go wrong eventually. Knowing that, you do the best you can do training yourself, doing all you can do so that you can weather the storm.”

CTE: The disease that changed everything

So why have all of these changes occurred over the past few years? What sparked the public’s concern about the safety of football? The answer is CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

CTE is a brain disease that is believed to be caused by repetitive brain trauma. It was discovered in 2002 and is most commonly found in the brains of athletes and veterans. Former boxers, along with football, soccer and hockey players have all been diagnosed with CTE. This disease is a major concern for football players, as the sport involves repeated blows to the head, with many players sustaining dozens of concussions throughout their careers.

The symptoms of this disease typically don’t show up until years after the brain trauma, making it difficult to detect. Common symptoms include depression, confusion, paranoia, memory loss, changes in gait, and aggressive or suicidal behaviors. CTE is also often linked to other diseases like Alzheimer's and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

Little is known about the disease. Its development in the brain, prevalence in the general population and treatment are all still unknown. Not only is there no cure for the disease, but it can’t be definitively diagnosed until a post-mortem examination of the brain. We have no idea what is going on inside a football player’s head until it’s too late. 

A study conducted by researchers at Boston University examined the brains of 202 deceased football players. The group included NFL, Canadian Football League, semi-professional, college, high school and youth players. Of those studied, the researchers found CTE present in 177 (or 88 percent) of the players. The most shocking group in the study were the NFL players: 110 of the 111 players studied from the league were diagnosed with CTE.

Some of the most notable players that have been diagnosed with the disease include:

  • Mike Webster
  • Aaron Hernandez
  • Ken Stabler
  • Frank Gifford
  • Junior Seau
  • Tyler Sash
  • Jovan Belcher
  • Dave Duerson
  • Terry Long
  • Andre Waters

It is important to note that the study did have its limitations. Most of the brains were donated by family members of players who suspected that they had suffered from the disease. Because the study used a convenience sample rather than a random one, the findings were skewed and do not represent the prevalence of CTE in the general population; however, it is clear that CTE is not a rare occurrence among football players.

Dr. Ann Mckee, a neuropathologist and co-author of the study, says “it is no longer debatable whether or not there is a problem in football -- there is a problem.”

The public responds

The discovery of CTE, the film “Concussion” (2015) and recent CTE studies have all generated a great deal of media coverage related to the safety of football. That coverage has lead to several events.

Beginning in 2011, nearly 5,000 retired football players sued the NFL for concealing the long-term impacts of concussions. The league would go on to acknowledge the link between football and CTE in 2016. The number of high school football players in the US dropped by nearly 26,000 members from 2016 to 2017, despite an overall increase in high school sports participation. Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the NFHS (National Federation of State High School Associations), believes that the decrease is directly linked to safety concerns among parents.

All of these occurrences beg the question: will people still want to play football now that we know the dangers of the game?

The answer to this question varies from player to player. Young NFL stars like Chris Borland and John Urschel are retiring early to avoid the long term consequences of the game. In regards to his decision to retire, Borland says “from what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”

On the other hand, many players are willing to take the risk, despite all of the new findings about CTE. During a fan forum in July at the New York Jets’ headquarters, Commissioner Roger Goodell answered questions about the efforts being made to improve the safety of the game. Rookie Jamal Adams interjected, saying he is “all about making the game safer, but as a defensive player, [he’s] not a big fan” of the changes being made. He even went as far as to say: “if I had a perfect place to die, I would die on the field.”

This sentiment isn’t just held by rookies. IMA asked Johnson if he would still have played in the NFL, knowing everything that he does now about the dangers of the game. He says, “I’m 95 percent sure I’d still give it a whirl, because it’s the drama, it’s the challenge when we play that we love.”

As for the future of the game and the looming threat of CTE, Dr. Bennet Omalu says all we can do is hope for the development of some sort of medication that will prevent diseases like CTE.

Updated on:


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